Saturday, January 7, 2012


In order to combat holiday loneliness, we decided to take a trip right after Christmas. Traditionally, New Year's Day is when you visit family. It is also important to go to shrines and temples early in the new year so that's when people take vacation. We planned our trip to beat the crowds and left for Hiroshima the Monday after Christmas. We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to the city and the overnight bus home. Our train was an unheard of 100min late. We've been told if the Shinkansen is running just a few minutes behind schedule it is news worthy, so stations must have been interrupting people's soap operas to tell them about our train. We still don't know what the hold up was. It only took us an hour to reach Hiroshima. It was sort of like being on a plane but without security screening and way more leg room. The night bus took 5.5 hours but cost half as much.

Because of the delay, by the time we found our hotel and checked in almost everything was closing for the day - remember things close at 5pm or earlier here. We walked around the Hiroshima castle grounds. There were a couple of trees that survived the atomic bomb and marked with plaques but most stuff had to be reconstructed, repaired, and regrown. This is true for the city, not just Hiroshima castle.

Then we walked over the the A-bomb Dome. This is the epicenter of the attack, the atomic bomb exploded 600 meters above this building. The city keeps the remains as a monument to peace and the hope of one day there being full nuclear disarmament.

That evening we had Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. Every Japanese person who knew we were going insisted we had to try Hiroshima style. We're used to Osaka style where people mix cabbage into a pancake-like batter, fry that up, put some kind of topping on, and then slather it in sauce. In Hiroshima things are in layers. There is a bottom pancake, cabbage, noodles, top pancake, topping and then the sauce. I think both are equally delicious.

The next day we took a ferry to Itsukushima island, specifically Miyajima. This island is famous for being one of the three great views of Japan, a list that was established in the 1600's. The Itsukushima shrine has a giant torii gate which is out in the water during high tide and easily approachable during low tide.

We decided to climb to the highest point on the island via stone stairs. It was literally an hour and 40min of walking up stairs. There was a shrine on the top and a 360 degree view of the island.

The shrine at the top had lots of what we refer to as Japanese putti.

We opted to take the cable car down the mountain and were able to walk up to and touch the torri gate at low tide.

We went to Shukukeien gardens and the Peace Memorial Park and Museum on our last day. The gardens were originally established in 1620 and had your Japanese garden staples – stone lanterns, koi (carp) pond, trickling streams, elegantly placed stones, tea house etc. You could buy food to feed to the carp and they would pile on top of each other to get to it. We've decided that we are no longer going to refer to over eating as “ate like a pig” but rather “ate like a koi.”

After the garden we walked through the Peace park and took about 3 hours going through the museum - everything was written in Japanese and English. The museum began with a history of Hiroshima up to the bombing, then it went into the historical development of the bomb – they even mentioned Lise Meitner but gave Otto Hahn too much credit. They then showed and described the aftermath. This was the gory section. There was a photo of a woman who was wearing a kimono with a black pattern at the time of the blast. All of the black sections were burned into her skin from the heat of the explosion.

Every time a country does any nuclear testing the current mayor of Hiroshima sends them a letter expressing concern and a desire to end all nuclear weapons programs. Copies are hung in the museum and there are way too many of them.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Christmas Nihon Style

Christmas in Japan certainly has been interesting. I'd assumed that it would be sort of a non-event, since very little of the population here is Christian and people don't really get off work for Christmas. I was only partially right -- people definitely celebrate Christmas, but it's not a religious or family-centered holiday here the way that it is in the West. Instead, the big family holiday is New Year's (they call it sho-gatsu), and Christmas functions roughly like New Year's Eve does in the US -- people go out on dates and party with their friends. At the same time, though, people are a lot more willing to use explicitly religious music in public Christmas light displays than in the U.S. and that sort of thing, because Christmas is a foreign holiday and people just find it all kind of cool, without taking it as seriously. Definitely no one says "Happy Holidays"; it's all about "Merry Christmas" (or on occasion "Merry Happy Christmas" or some other variation). Think of how excited they'll be when they find out about Hanukkah and have *two* exotic foreign holidays in one month.

On Christmas Eve we went to a big Christmas light display in Osaka that was pretty impressive. However, the ones in Kobe were much better.

This is a picture from the hand bell concert outside of one of the department stores in Sannomiya. We got all our shopping done in one day and then got to hear a free concert.

Before we went to the Osaka Lights we decided on Mexican food for our Christmas eve meal. We just want to show you all that it is possible to find good Mexican in Japan. There was even live music. At one point I said to Craig "If you told me I'd be spending Christmas Eve in Osaka Japan eating Mexican food while listening to a Japanese guy sing Christmas carols in English with a heavy accent, I'd never believe you."

And here are highlights from the lights. The display was on an island in the middle of the river that runs through the city. It begins with a lighted walk way, and then displays on park grounds. There was the usual Santa Claus, reindeer, and trees decorated with lights, but they also included dolphins, Pooh-san (Winnie the Pooh), Mickey-san, Minnie-san etc that kids could take their pictures with. There were also decorated boats making circles around the island.